Death by Corolla: What is happening to car culture?

You can tell a lot about someone by the car they drive. I, for example, drive a 2003 Toyota Corolla, which tells you I have given up on life.

That was a joke. But I’m serious about this theory. The fact I drive a 2003 Corolla tells you, right off the bat, that I am not driving the car I wish I was driving. Nobody wants a Corolla, just like nobody wants to eat frozen pizza. You settle for it. It also suggests that I am at least somewhat concerned about gas mileage, (probably) don’t have a family, (probably) have some idea which makes are most reliable, (possibly) have a job that involves some commuting and (almost certainly) does not pay very much.

Here, in order, are the cars I drove prior to my Corolla:

  • 1967 Dodge Coronet
  • 1975 Dodge Dart Swinger
  • 1992 Subaru SVX
  • 1992 Ford Explorer
  • 1983 Chevrolet El Camino

The point is, a Toyota Corolla has absolutely nothing to do with my personality and it is slowly murdering my soul.

All of this is a way of saying that I am becoming wistful and afraid regarding the disintegration of American culture as we know it.

That is a photo of something called the T.25 City Car. It was designed be a fomer F1 engineer most famous for the McLaren F1, which goes 240 miles per hour. The T.25 has a top speed of 80, gets 74 miles per gallon and costs $9,000. In no way is it not good that we have this option. Anything that reduces the demand for oil is good. And I can imagine a lot of parents of 16-year-old kids liking the idea of a $9,000 car that can’t go faster than 80*. I think this car is a good thing.

*Two notes here:

1) Inside a contraption like that, a collision above, oh, 13 miles per hour will likely result in instantaneous death.

2) I have known plenty of cars in my day that could barely go 80 miles per hour, and they cost far less than $9,000.

It’s just that if that’s what cars are going to be, then something I’ve loved my entire life no longer exists.

Like millions of others, I have lived all my life fascinated by cars. I used to sit in my room for hours looking at Hot Rod Magazine, Car Craft Magazine and Car & Driver. I’ve always been a sports fan, but while most kids could quote you baseball statistics, I could give you horsepowers and cubic inches and tell you the minute differences in body style between a 1963 Impala and a 1964 Impala. I would pour through auto parts catalogs daydreaming about the upgrades we could make to our 1967 Ford pickup.

How can we go faster and look cooler? That is the essence of American car culture and, metaphorically, American culture as a whole.

"Throw some Ds on that."

And now, some cultural background. Feel free to skip ahead until after the green Barracuda if you want, although I find this stuff fascinating and perhaps you will too.

Like a great number of American cultural developments, the car culture developed because of the World Wars. After World War II, Americans had money, felt awesome about being Americans and started moving to the suburbs. These three things, combined with cheap oil, created not just a demand for cars, but a demand for cool ones.

This add for a 1957 Chevy says it all.

A few years later, as the space race captivated the country, cars started reflecting that. Their designs invoked spaceships and cockpits and speed.

Incredibly, in a span of just 24 years (1945-1969) — one generation, basically — the United States had won World War II, enjoyed enormous economic expansion and put a freaking man on the moon. We were unstoppable. It must have felt this way. I am not ignoring the numerous and enormous problems we endured in the 1960s. In fact, I think you could make a strong argument that much of the social change in the 1960s, good and bad, was at least in part a product of people feeling more emboldened and less stoppable than they had ever felt before.

Meanwhile, in southern California …

"It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh..."

…people were using cars for self-expression. You could have called them artists, but that’s not what they called themselves. They were just craftsmen making cool cars cooler.

The '51 Mercury was a classic canvas for these guys.

These kinds of customizations became so popular that it started influencing the way auto manufacturers designed their cars. It all fed off itself.

The late 50s through early 70s was undoubtedly the golden age for American cars. They went faster and looked cooler than ever. There was genuine creativity involved. The cars had soul and spirit and like millions of others, I have always loved them. I have always loved the idea that even if you couldn’t buy a Corvette, you could take your dad’s old ’51 Mercury or ’67 Ford pickup or Honda Civic and make it faster, make it cooler, make it you. Americans aren’t the only people who do that, but there is something very American about it.

They have never made cars like that in Japan or France or Italy. These cars are a part of my personal identity, but also a part of our collective identity.

We won the war, we got to the moon first, we created jazz music and barbecue and Elvis. Our soccer team doesn’t flop. Our 26th president was shot in the arm during a campaign speech and finished the speech before having the wound dressed. Our Olympic basketball players grab their crotches after dunks. Our 35th president shagged Marilyn Monroe. Our 43rd president responded to an attack from one country by bombing the crap out of an entirely different country because it seemed like they were cool with each other. We season our salads with bacon.

Not everything we do is good, but we are who we are. Of course we made the most balls-out cars in the world.

Over time, that brought us to the Toyota Corolla and, eventually, the T.25 City Car. We loved our big, fast, gas-guzzling cars so much that we created the circumstances that made them impractical. That’s the irony.

And that reality is inescapable. This doesn’t spell the end of car culture. You can still drive whatever you want and millions of people still drive cars that get like 16 miles per gallon. This is not the car apocalypse. Millions of gallons of oil are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico every day, and the price of it is barely affected. We are not close to running out.

But a lot of what has happened in the car world over the last five years or so has been unfair. This discussion has been co-opted by political agendas. If you drive an SUV or a muscle car, you’re an a-hole Republican who doesn’t care. If you drive a Prius, you’re a compassionate liberal trying to save the planet. Some conservatives drive trucks just to prove a point, and some liberals drive hybrids to do the same. And if you cringe at the idea of the Smart Car or the T.25, it’s because you’re afraid Your Side is losing some kind of battle.

I’m afraid it’s a little more complicated than that, yet a little more simple, too.

The market will decide whether the T.25 succeeds, just as the market decided on muscle cars in the 60s. This isn’t about a political agenda for me. Everyone should root for technologies that improve fuel mileage.

Life circumstances have led me to my Corolla. It is the best thing for me right now, even though it doesn’t feel like me, even though it doesn’t express anything, even though it is neither fast nor cool.

In my parents’ garage I have a 1964 Ford Galaxie. I have mostly rebuilt the engine. The car still needs plenty of work, and for the time being, it sits and I drive my Corolla, even on weekends, even on the Fourth of July.

It is the best thing for right now. I just hope it doesn’t have to stay that way.

4 thoughts on “Death by Corolla: What is happening to car culture?

  1. Good stuff. I think I can read between the lines, though, and see that what your soul really desires is a beige, 2003 Chevy Malibu with copious amounts of hail damage. Don’t deny your feelings.

  2. Throw in a pair of pleated-front Dockers and a polo shirt and you’ve got yourself a deal.

  3. i understand where youre coming from. atleas its understood that the corolla you possess is simply an economy car. however to be fair to the “corolla” it has alot of potential to be a “fast” car. usually people would opt for an xrs model or go for older model corollas with faster jdm counterparts that tey can swap…just like integras so to speak with their h22 swaps and such. i drive a 97 corolla 4age swapped. but drive the supra on weekends..that way..both cars are something i like, one while slower is not at all boring and yet defies the “american” stigma of the slow bring corolla. at least of my model…the newer ones are unsaveable in my opinion…..but o well. i hope you get back into the swing of things man

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